War Stories

From Austin to the Upper Peninsula to Afghanistan and back: Heather Courtney's long journey to arrive at 'Where Soldiers Come From'

Heather Courtney
Heather Courtney (Photo by John Anderson)

As the quiet real-life drama of Where Soldiers Come From unfolds, it's difficult not to be reminded of The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino's devastating 1978 fictional feature about the three small-town factory workers who enlist in the Army, fight in the Vietnam War, and return with debilitating damage, if at all. Heather Courtney's new documentary, after all, focuses on three young men growing up in a small, former industrial town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who enlist in the National Guard, are deployed to Afghanistan, and struggle when they return home. In a world that's always blurring the line between life and cinematic images, it's easy to confuse the two, as well as to make glib comparisons.

Nevertheless, there's something surprising about a moment fairly early in Where Soldiers Come From, when Mary Smith, the mother of one of the soldiers, mentions the Cimino film when talking about her fears of what will happen when such a close group of friends goes to war together. It could be because it's startling to hear a mother invoke such a dark, disturbing image in relation to her son, especially while she is curling her hair at the kitchen table. It could be because she's not pasting on a smile, looking at the bright side, being optimistic; she's speaking plainly and forthrightly about her worst fears.

Or it could be that we might not expect a hair stylist and waitress from a tiny town in an isolated part of the country to reference violent, gritty, nihilistic movies from the 1970s, no matter how many Oscars they won. Even now, the common take on rural America is that geographic and cultural isolation go hand in hand.

Those are the kinds of beliefs that Courtney wanted to address when she set out to make her film. After the awards and accolades for Letters From the Other Side and "Los Trabajadores," docs she made in Mexico and Texas, the Austin-based director turned her attention to her hometown in the far northern reaches of Michigan, one town away from the soldiers whose stories she ended up telling.

"I do remember being surprised that Mary referenced The Deer Hunter," she says in a phone interview from Michigan, where she's on tour with the film, "and particularly in that instant. But she was that age during the Vietnam War, so she was very affected by that war. It makes total sense, when you look at it in that way, that she would know about The Deer Hunter and would reference it.

"But again, maybe it goes back to stereotypes that people might have – being so surprised that Mary voted for Obama, for example. Particularly in northern Michigan, it's a very interesting and varied population up there. I don't think you can categorize it as conservative or as liberal or as right-wing or pro-war or anti-war. It's a real mixture of people who live up here in northern Michigan, and I think that's probably true in a lot of rural areas. The viewpoints are very hard to categorize and hard to define as any one way or not."

"Because I grew up in a small town," she says, "I was very sensitive to how often in a movie or a television show, small-town America is not portrayed in a very positive light. Rural America is often portrayed very simplistically, and I wanted to tell a story about rural America that was more universal and that people would connect to."

<i>Where Soldiers Come From </i>
Where Soldiers Come From

That connection comes largely through the three young men from Hancock, Mich. – the artistic Dominic Fredianelli, happy-go-lucky cutup Cole Smith, and pragmatic, dutiful Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin – along with their parents, friends, and girlfriends. We spend the first part of the film hanging out with them as they kick around, swimming, partying, tagging rusted-out structures, and slowly divulging their reasons for and feelings about joining up.

The reasons are straightforward: They have no jobs in a town where the only real industry is tourism, no prospects anywhere else, and nothing else to do, nor can they afford a college education, which the military is offering in return for their service. That situation, in other words, is where soldiers come from.

The feelings are more complicated – girlfriends and parents are angry and afraid, while the boys are philosophical, nervous, and a bit resigned. It's a powerful, poignant depiction of sweet, smart people whose options in life have increasingly narrowed.

That Courtney was able to access and capture such openness was in part due to her status as a native daughter. "I definitely think it was easier for me than it would have been for somebody who wasn't from here," she says. "It being such a small town, everybody does know everybody, so I think it was easier for people to trust me because they knew that I would care about what people in my hometown thought. They knew I had an understanding of the area that someone from the outside would not."

The director's deep commitment to the project was also clear. Four years in the making, it took her not only back to her hometown for extended periods but on three trips to Afghanistan, where she was embedded with the men's combat unit, whose job was to find and detonate improvised explosive devices. Both locations involved long stretches of downtime. 

"Another thing that helped and that helps on all my projects is that I spend a lot of time with people while I'm filming," she says. "I don't film all the time.  A lot of the time, I was just sort of hanging out with them and with their families. I think it's important to really get to know the people in your film. There's never going to be a comfort level if you're just swooping in to shoot for a few days and then leave. If you want to do a vérité documentary, you need to put in the time so that you are portraying them as real people and sincerely."

It didn't hurt – in fact, it almost seems crucial – that Courtney went on to graduate film school at UT and remained based in Austin as part of a loosely affiliated pack of supportive and collaborative cohorts who work in all aspects of the field. The film is gorgeously shot and masterfully edited (in fact, it won the award for best editing in a documentary feature at South by Southwest this year), both qualities that owe much to the Austin filmmaking community.

"I gave [the look of the film] a lot of thought because the town itself is a character," says Courtney. The first scenes in the film, in 16mm black and white, are both beautiful and disorienting. For a few minutes, it's hard to tell if it's in Michigan or Afghanistan. "I did think very hard about the contrast," she says. "The first shot is of the frozen waves in Lake Superior. And it almost looks like a desert. I used 16mm to film some stuff in the Upper Peninsula, particularly the winters in black and white, because I thought that it would really highlight the desolateness but also the beauty. We also used it for several of the mural painting scenes that Dominic does and switched to color 16mm for fall and spring to highlight the beauty up here. We used it for very specific reasons, to portray the beauty and the character of the town."

Heather Courtney on location
in Michigan
Heather Courtney on location in Michigan

"Justin Hennard, who is an Austin resident, shot the 16mm," she explains. "There aren't a lot of people who you can ask, 'Do you want to come up to Michigan in the middle of winter and shoot snow in 16mm in abandoned buildings?' I think he said, 'That sounds dreamy.' I'm so glad that I went to film school in Austin." 

Kyle Henry, who co-edited the film with Courtney, recently moved to Chicago but at the time was a well-established Austin editor and director; he edited Courtney's first full-length doc, Letters From the Other Side. Co-producers Megan Gilbride and David Hartstein are both UT alums with their own impressive credits.

Only Courtney, though, spent five months on those three trips to Afghanistan, most of it frustratingly in the back of an armored truck, the only place she was allowed to sit when the unit went out to find, explode, and sometimes get hit by IEDs. It was she who, unable to obtain any meaningful footage from her perch, ordered helmet cameras on the Internet and figured out how to rig them to the gun turret, to the front of the vehicle (facing the drivers), and at the front of the convoy. The results, combined with audio from the soldiers' headsets, convey both the tedium and the real, chaotic terror that make up the soldiers' daily patrols.

It was also Courtney who journeyed back to the families, bringing welcome updates that the men themselves were forbidden for security reasons to divulge on Skype or Facebook. "[The families and girlfriends] were all very distraught and worried 24-7. It was much more stressful trying to film them when the guys were gone. I experienced it a little bit because I would come back for a month or two and not know what was going on with the guys. I was much more stressed out being away from Afghanistan than I was in Afghanistan."

Remarkably, Where Soldiers Come From conveys its story powerfully while steering clear of either superficial liberal statements or sentimental, patriotic nostalgia. There are points in the story when politics intersect with the documentary's subjects – during Obama's 2000 election and, more poignantly, when he later announces a troop increase in Afghanistan – but they are presented dispassionately, focusing on the very personal reasons, for instance, a mother would want to vote in a way she thinks holds the best promise for her son.

"Heather works in a very socially conscious territory," says Hartstein. "But she's treading in a more emotional realm, which to me is the strength of cinema. She really gets that and respects it and treads lightly, understanding the power of that."

That doesn't mean Courtney shies away from depicting the damage war exacts on its participants. She and the soldiers return to the Upper Peninsula for the last part of the movie, and her camera records their newfound anger, the wages of traumatic brain injury, the struggles to navigate bureaucracy and to obtain their promised college educations.

"You get to bring to the film and leave the film with whatever political beliefs you have," says Gilbride. "I really love that about the film because it means it can find an audience with a variety of political beliefs. That's really important to tell the story and have it get out. I think that it's politically expedient when a lot of people who are voting don't know the people who are going. That's what I love about the story – it's important to say, 'This is real people's lives.'"

"The movie's such a success on those terms," adds Hartstein. "After every screening I've been to that Cole and Bodi and Dom have been at, everyone just wants to give them a big hug. I think that it's a success in the terms that Heather set it to be."

Courtney is insistent that Where Soldiers Come From is not a war movie, that she set out to capture a more complex version of small towns, and particularly her hometown, than those that are generally depicted in American media. One has to believe that she also in part wanted to embrace and rediscover that place for herself. "When I was growing up here, I didn't pay much attention," she says during a fascinating conversational detour through the copper and iron mining history of the Upper Peninsula. "When I came back to make the movie, I learned a lot about where I'm from."

Where Soldiers Come From screens locally on Oct. 12, 13, and 15. There will be Q&As with Heather Courtney after each screening, and the soldiers profiled in the film will be in attendance at the Oct. 13 & 15 shows. See Film Listings for showtimes and locations.

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Where Soldiers Come From, Heather Courtney, Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith, Bodi Beaudoin, Kyle Henry, Megan Gilbride, Justin Hennard, David Harstein, Letters From the Other Side, Los Trabajadores, Mary Smith, Afghanistan

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